Defense media has been rife with talk about anti-ship missiles in recent months, thanks in no small part to the lead China and Russia have on the United States when it comes to fielding hypersonic platforms. With the U.S. military turning its attention toward a return to near-peer level conflicts and tensions continuing to escalate in the South China Sea, the ability to target and strike a vessel from standoff distance has never been more important. Still, for all the talk about the ways in which the world’s militaries hopes to sink enemy vessels, not much attention has been paid to just how hard it can be to sink a ship purpose-built for war.
Because warships float atop the surface of what would be their very undoing, one would think sinking one is as simple as penetrating the hull at or below the water line. As water rushes in, the ship’s buoyancy would be compromised and it would stop floating. But reality isn’t quite so simple.
In order to sink a ship, you’ve got to hit it, which represents the first serious hurdle for anti-ship weapons platforms. Even America’s massive aircraft carriers, measuring more than a thousand feet in length and housing thousands of sailors, amounts to a tiny speck of a target against the expansive backdrop of an ocean. Because carriers need to be on the move in order to launch aircraft, we’re talking about an exceptionally small target moving in erratic patterns at a great distance (as far as a thousand miles for some Chinese platforms).
Let’s assume that part of the equation is covered, either via an elaborate and capable targeting apparatus or because the target ship is, for some reason, stationary. Under most circumstances, simply hitting a ship still isn’t enough to sink it. To sink most modern warships, you need to rain a whole lot of hate down on it.
In 2018’s Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercises, U.S. and Japanese forces unleashed a number of different anti-ship platforms on the ex-USS Racine (a tank landing ship), including the Navy’s newest Naval Strike Missile, four Japanese Type 12 anti-ship missiles, and America’s High Mobility Artillery Rocket System. The ship was also hit by a Harpoon missile and Mark 48 torpedo fired by the USS Olympia, before finally succumbing to the surf.
In a real combat scenario, these munitions may have been leveraged in a more effective manner and, it pays to note, that it is often easier to disable a vessel than it is to send it to Davy Jones’ Locker.
Nonetheless, watching this old ship take all that punishment is a sight to see.